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 May 2007


Dialogue of Cultures instead of Dialogue of Civilizations


Interview with Dr Abdulkarim Soroush by Hamideh Safamanesh

For the Iranian Students News Agency

5 May 2007





“When Mr Khatami proposed the idea of the dialogue of civilizations, it was a kind of reaction to the idea of the clash of civilizations.  The clash of civilizations was first mentioned by Bernard Lewis, a professor at Princeton University.  But he only suggested it as an idea and did not really flesh it out.  Later, Mr Huntington, who is a professor at Harvard University, pursued it and lent it political and even military dimensions.  He wrote an article on the subject and expanded on his theory in a book.  But the clash of civilizations attracted a great deal of attention in the US and in many European countries.  Mr Khatami suggested his own theory as a response to and as a way of countering that theory, and he replaced the clash with dialogue.  The Westerners took the idea of the clash of civilizations seriously and a number of Foreign Ministries devoted time to it.  I even recall that, several years ago, the German Foreign Ministry organized a big seminar to discuss the theory which of course never actually materialized!  They wanted to know how serious the possibility of such a clash was so that they could reassess their foreign policy on that basis!”

These were a part of Dr Abdulkarim Soroush’s remarks in an interview with the Dialogue of Civilizations Service of the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).  In the interview, which revolved around the idea of ‘dialogue of civilizations’, he suggested that a ‘dialogue of cultures’ would be more practicable and more comprehensive.

West has not taken the theory of dialogue as seriously as the clash of civilizations

Dr Soroush said: “It seems that the West has not taken the theory of the dialogue of civilizations as seriously as the clash of civilizations and the question of a clash is still more important to them, especially after the events of 11 September, when the subject became more serious and attracted more attention.  It even found its way into the minds of the general public in the West.  It was as if a clash – and a bloody clash at that – was bound to occur sooner or later between civilizations and, especially, between the Islamic civilization and the West.”

It would be better to speak of a dialogue of cultures

Dr Soroush said:  “I was wondering to myself why we should speak about a dialogue of civilizations and not about a dialogue of cultures?  The terms ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ have particular meanings in modern times.  The same people who coined the term ‘civilization’ have also used the term ‘culture’.  Neither of these was invented by our thinkers and philosophers.  In Europe, in particular, historians coined the terms ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ to explain a number of historical developments and phenomena, and they were used extensively thereafter.  We’ve correctly translated the two terms into their Persian equivalents but we should bear in mind that these two expressions are not very long-standing for us and in our tradition.  So, we should use them in the same sense as they are currently being used in their birthplace.”

“The main point I’m trying to make is that it would have been better and it would be better to speak of ‘dialogue of cultures’, because civilizations are basically the static stages of cultures.  A culture is called a culture when it is in progress;  it is a culture when it is flowing like a river and is dynamic and fertile.”

“Spengler, who discussed the subject of civilizations, firmly underlined this.  Once a culture has been built and is approaching its final stages and when it becomes static and established, then, it’s called a civilization.  It is part and parcel of the definition of civilizations that they clash, because civilizations are identities and, as a matter of course, identities are at odds with each other and are prone to fighting and clashing. Each one of them wants to gain the upper hand, whereas cultures are not like this.”

We should speak of a dialogue of cultures instead of a dialogue of civilizations

Dr Soroush said: “Civilizations are like kings and, in the words of our great poet Sa’di, two kings don’t fit in a single land; each one will try to drive the other out and to take sole charge of everything. Whereas cultures are like ordinary people and they can be friends and have dealings with each other.  And even if they behave like enemies from time to time, their enmity is a passing thing.  I think that, first and foremost, it would be best for us to use the term ‘cultures’ instead of ‘civilizations’; then, we could speak about  the dialogue of religions too, because religions are a part of cultures and they enjoy cultural dynamism.  They can constantly change and develop.”

Dialogue of cultures is always in progress

“The dialogue of cultures has almost always been in progress and it is also in progress today. Of course, this dialogue can be made more unadulterated, friendly and instructive and taken to the point where cultures can really rush to one another’s assistance and have more humane dealings with each another, so that they can forge a better future.”

Most important thing left for humanity to do is to engage in dialogue

Dr Soroush also said that the position of cultures in this dialogue was defined by their poverty or richness: “The richer culture has more to say, but, be that as it may, cultures can sit down together and engage in dialogue.  And the people who hold this dialogue between cultures are the people who are involved in culture; people who have a hand in culture and are its bearers.  This can include philosophers, historians, artists, clerics and so on, and the dialogue between clerics is effectively a dialogue between religions.  I believe that perhaps the most important thing that’s left for humanity to do is to engage in dialogue.  There can be nothing higher and more fruitful than this.”

Dr Soroush said that the assumption behind the idea of the dialogue of cultures was that cultures, not technology or wealth or military force, have the upper hand:  “Military force exists and there’s no denying it.  There are countries that are stronger than us in terms of material wealth and there’s no doubting it.  But, as it happens, these aren’t manifestations of cultural or civilizational beauty and they don’t have the last word.  If we speak of the universality of human rights today, we have to remember that human rights at any rate were not made  by the Bush and Reagan Administrations.  Human rights have been fleshed out by philosophers over several centuries and, today, they have achieved this universal supremacy, to the point where they’ve turned into an international language and we all speak to each other via this language.  It is something that all cultures and civilizations want.  The same thing can be said of many other things and you can see that thought and culture have, in fact, been determinant on these things.”

We have to fight wasteful, intemperate, aggressive technology with culture

Dr Soroush added:  “Look, Marx was a philosopher and a sociologist, as were many of his fellow travellers.  You can see how they changed the scene in the West and created a big rival for capitalism.  Of course, internal faults made it collapse, although the collapse has not been wholesale and total.  What I’m trying to say is that, in fact, it is cultures that should talk together and engage in dialogue. And it is in this way that many hidden things will come to the surface;  things that are hidden under technology. A drape of this fabric has now come into being which is hiding many of the beautiful things and true riches that lie underneath and is not allowing them to display themselves.  They are the things that need to become visible in order to prevent the excesses of technology and the like.”

Dr Soroush said that the hand and the brain that builds and uses technology should be under the sway of culture, adding:  “If you change it and replace it with something else, you’ll obtain an altogether better result.  You can’t fight technology with technology because it would make technology grow more corpulent.  You have to fight wasteful, intemperate and aggressive technology with culture so that you can put technology in its rightful place.  This is why I think that now is the best time for such a thing to start;  in fact, it’s a little late.”

We have to begin intra-cultural dialogue in the world of Islam

Dr Soroush said:  “In order for the idea of the dialogue of cultures to become meaningful and to prevent it from becoming a mere slogan we have to begin intra-cultural dialogue in the world of Islam itself.”

“I’m putting my finger on the ill and shortcoming that we’re plagued with today.  The world of Islam has different segments; i.e. Iranian Islam, Turkish Islam, Indonesian Islam, Arab Islam, etc.  Unfortunately, these different segments are quite uninformed about each another.  When I go to Turkey, I see that they know little about developments in Iran, Islamic Iran’s culture and Iran’s Islam.  I come to Iran and I see that we Iranians don’t know much about developments in Turkish culture.  Likewise with Indonesia, the Arab world, etc.  This inauspicious fact is worth reflecting on.  We used to translate many more books from Arabic into Persian in the past.  Now, we have far fewer such translations!  A cultural separation and disjunction has come about between us and the Arab world, Indonesia, India, Turkey, etc.”

There must be many more exchanges of visits between the different parts of Islam

Dr Soroush said:  “I speak about the dialogue of cultures and I consider it very necessary, but it has to said that, before we begin our dialogue with, for example, Christianity or the West, we have to introduce it into our own culture.  There must be many more exchanges of visits between the different parts of Islam.  The erudite must be able to travel freely between these regions.  A far greater number of seminars ought to be held between the different parts of Islam.  I was visiting Morocco.  Even when I was speaking to some of the professors there, I could see that their knowledge of Shi’ism and Shi’is is very simplistic and crude!  It’s surprising, because these are all parts of the world of Islam.  A professor should be much more sensitive to issues of this kind than an ordinary member of the public.  But linguistic disjunctions and fissures that have political roots have made us thoroughly uninformed about one another.”

Unity is a product of cultural contact and dialogue

Dr Soroush said that, if unity was to be attained, it would occur through cultural contact and dialogue:  “Politicians should play the most minimal and faintest role here.  The minute the issue is tainted with politics, a thousand and one ulterior motives enter in and distort and alter everything.”

Dr Soroush reiterated that, first, he proposed that we speak of the dialogue of cultures and, second, that we get the dialogue of cultures going among us Muslims, and he added:  “I’m in favour of dialogue between us and Christians and, of course, this dialogue has been in progress.  In Iran, too, a number of my friends and I have embarked on this task.  But, on occasion, politics has meddled in, making it less fruitful, as I suggested earlier.  I propose that we should also have dialogue between Muslims and Jews, because, as it happens, Judaism has many more affinities with Islam and, as you know, many Western historians and religious theorists frequently make the point that Islam was a kind of reform of Judaism.  I may not raise this point as a Muslim, but let’s not forget that, as a matter of fact, many aspects of Judaism also apply in Islam.  Jews have a jurisprudence-oriented mind, as do Muslims.  But Christians don’t have this mentality.  As Muslims and the inhabitants of Islamic culture, we tremble when we see Christianity’s fate in the secular world and in secular civilization.  We try to make use of Christianity’s experience - in a positive and negative sense – so that we don’t re-experience their misfortunes and avoid going down the same path as they did in their encounter with modern civilization, and so that we make decisions that are in our interests and in the interests of our religiosity.”

A dialogue of civilizations is like a dialogue of armies!

Dr Soroush said:  “If I were to make an analogy, I’d say that speaking about the dialogue of civilizations is like speaking about the dialogue of armies!  Armies are made to fight each other.  We can’t establish a dialogue between armies, but we can speak of dialogue between universities.  We have to pay attention to the position and location of the dialogue!  I don’t want to quarrel about words but I think that when we speak about the dialogue of cultures, the meaning is much clearer, purer and more transparent than if we speak of the dialogue of civilizations.”

Identities always hit their heads against each other until one of them breaks

Dr Soroush said: “Civilizations are hard casings that are drawn over cultures.  They are ready for war and for driving out other civilizations and gaining the upper hand.  This is because civilizations are identities and identities always hit their heads against each other until one of the heads eventually breaks and is eliminated.  The Western world and Western civilization has, over the past 150 years, essentially been the producer of theories of war;  from Marx, who spoke of class war and described it as the engine of history, onwards to Mr Huntington, today, who speaks of the war of civilizations.  And when the question of nationalities and nationalism was raised, it was always a question of war.”

We can cultivate culture by using the dialogue of cultures as our slogan

Dr Soroush said: “It would be very good for us to step outside the circle of war and not to appear on the world stage as warriors but as the bearers of culture and the cultivators of culture.  But to do this, we have to choose a suitable banner and slogan.  And the suitable banner is the dialogue of cultures, not the dialogue of civilizations.  We can thereby cut through to a more correct and clearer route and forge the future in a more rational way.”

Muslims have had a great deal to say to the world

Dr Soroush underlined that Muslims should initiate the dialogue and said:  “If they sit and wait for the time for dialogue to arrive, it may never arrive and it may grow too late.  Muslims have had a great deal to say to the world.  Now, too, if they shake themselves up a bit, they have a great deal to say and to offer.  In fact, the language of spirituality can become a second language.  In the West, we find that many thinkers are criticizing the preponderance of the language of rights, although this language has not become wholly universal.  They examine the limitations of the language of rights and believe that the new culture and civilization, which uses use the language of rights as its main language, unfortunately has some shortcomings and that we must find a third category beyond rights and duties through which we can speak to each other.  Debate about virtue and spirituality and so on has become very current. This debate can also be used by the world of Islam and Muslims.”

Muslim thinkers should enter into international dialogue

Dr Soroush said: “Muslim thinkers should make the best possible use of the resources that they have in this respect and should enter into international dialogue.  In the present circumstances, if we want to do good cultural work, we can find a more positive and more auspicious alternative to rights which also embraces the good aspects of rights but does not have the same limitations.   We have to turn it into a universal language.  We can propose projects of this kind.  Of course, we can step in and initiate the dialogue or organize it better and open a new way.  Let me reiterate in this connection that we must keep politicians out of this arena otherwise this convoy will remain lame until Judgement Day.”

Battle of ideas is the beginning of dialogue

Dr Soroush also said: “Iran has a great deal to do, too, in the midst of all this.  We mustn’t pursue very extravagant projects.  We must organize dialogue amongst ourselves.  Violent methods must be replaced by dialogue.  As Popper said: We humans aren’t animals; animals kill each other, but we kill each other’s theories.  We have to present our ideas so that they can go into battle and this is the beginning of dialogue.  Then, we can turn to the world of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.”





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